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Fabio Carvalho: Fulham wonderkid who has Europe's elite on alert

12:00 GMT 07/12/2021
Fabio Carvalho NXGN GFX
Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool and Chelsea are among the clubs monitoring the 19-year-old after he turned down a new deal at Craven Cottage

During the second half of Fulham’s visit to Stamford Bridge in May 2021, in which Scott Parker’s side - one game away from relegation - were trailing 2-0 to Chelsea, there was an expectation among viewers that a young, academy-produced attacking midfielder would be introduced from the bench.

When the substitutes’ board was raised in the 78th minute, however, it was not the number 55 of Chelsea’s Faustino Anjorin - a high-profile talent who had been pushing for first-team minutes - that was displayed as expected.

Instead, it was the number 48 of Fulham’s lesser-known 18-year-old Fabio Carvalho, coming on to make his league debut.

After the Cottagers’ relegation was confirmed the following week with a 2-0 loss to Burnley, Parker showed his belief in Carvalho’s ability and potential by starting him in the last three games of the season.

A well-taken first senior goal against Southampton and a tireless display against Newcastle on the final day certainly vindicated that faith, which then posed an important question: would Carvalho be trusted to start week-in, week-out in the Championship the following campaign? 

That question was answered with an emphatic yes by new manager Marco Silva.

Before sustaining a foot injury that would keep him out for nine weeks, Carvalho recorded three goals and one assist in the first five games of the 2021-22 season, all of which he started. He then found the net once more on his return to the starting XI against Barnsley in November.

Silva’s 4-2-3-1 formation is, to an extent, built around Carvalho, the now-19-year-old given the freedom to play as a roaming No.10.

This gives him the ability to go where he pleases - as is typical for the position, his presence between the lines is particularly valuable to promotion-chasing Fulham - but the youngster is highly intelligent and takes up different positions throughout games, from smartly occupying the last line to dropping deep to aid the first phase of build-up play.

An England youth international up to Under-18s level, Carvalho was born in Lisbon and spent time in the Benfica academy between the ages of 8-11 before his family moved to London.

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He joined Fulham’s academy in 2014 and signed his first professional contract in May 2020, but had been making waves in west London far before that, having broken into Fulham’s U18s squad at the age of 15.

After spending three years flitting between that level and the U23s, Carvalho's final campaign at youth level in Premier League 2 was particularly dominant as he returned 19 direct goal contributions in just 13 appearances - providing a goal or assist every 60 minutes before earning his first-team chance at the end of the season.

Off the field, Carvalho is said to be a very determined personality, described as “dedicated to self-improvement” by Fulham’s academy director, Huw Jennings. 

“In the next few years, [he wants] to be competing for the Ballon d’Or. You have to aim high,” Jennings added.

August’s EFL Young Player of the Month award may be some way off from those lofty ambitions, but Carvalho's ability on the pitch means that he is heading in the right direction.

As dangerous a goalscorer as he is a creator, the teenager's confidence and composure on the ball instantly stands out.

The question of how to progress the ball forwards is always at the forefront of his thoughts, but this desire to constantly add progressive value does not hamper his ball retention; especially considering his tender age, his decision-making is excellently measured and he does not force the issue when on the ball.

He frequently drops deep to pick up the ball to feet during build-up play, and possesses a valuable on-ball gravity in these situations - his relaxed demeanour attracts defenders towards him even when not in a dangerous position, and he effortlessly evades pressure through intelligent passing combinations or nifty dribbling.

It is not just his ability in deeper areas that stands out, though: the combination of his high-level agility and excellent close control, along with a strong technical foundation, makes for a menacing final-third presence.

Carvalho has also displayed a Frank Lampard-esque aptitude for runs from midfield that lead to late arrivals in the box, allowing him to get himself into good goalscoring positions.

It is clear from just his 17 first-team appearances that Carvalho’s prospects greatly exceed what he can achieve at Fulham. He seems to already be aware of this, too, as illustrated by his apparent reluctance to sign a new contract as his current deal enters its final few months.

This has prompted rumours linking him with the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool and Chelsea, but there is more to this situation than meets the eye.

Carvalho’s existing agreement with agency Unique Sports Management is set to expire in January, and he is said to not even be willing to consider signing an extension with Fulham until his new management team is fully arranged and in place.

He is reportedly being pursued by super-agent Jorge Mendes, who is said to want to move him to Liverpool, and as to be expected, Fulham boss Silva is “not happy with the situation”. 

“I really hope [those advising Carvalho] are taking care of [him], not just for the moment, not just to do a big contract, but about the boy of Fabio Carvalho,” the ex-Everton boss said when asked about potentially losing the club’s top young talent.

There is much to consider when giving thought to what Carvalho would be best advised to do in this situation. There is a large part of the current season remaining, and how he does both in terms of minutes and performances is likely to dictate the options that will be available to him come the summer.

There will, however, at least be one baseline decision for him to make: whether to leave or stay at Fulham.

If Silva’s side earn promotion back to the Premier League - which looks likely given how they have played so far this season - then staying would in itself represent a step up in quality of opposition for Carvalho, and there is even an argument to be made that a second season in the Championship could be beneficial if the Cottagers were to remain in the division.

However, what Carvalho may most desire - and understandably so - is an increase in the quality of his team-mates, so that he can attempt to raise his level in order to match them. For this, he would have to move clubs, and it is unlikely that he will be short of options.

But he will have to consider his choice of club very carefully: for example, Liverpool are unlikely to be the best fit given that work out of possession is the area of Carvalho’s game that has the most room for improvement.

What is in no doubt, however, is how much potential he has to grow. Those who watched him make his Premier League debut at Stamford Bridge back in May may well have seen the emergence of a future star.

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